S�te sail

The Extreme Sailing Series Europe competition opens this year in France, in the Mediterranean port of S�te. Last year, Judy Armstrong took part and experienced the ride of her life

The Extreme Sailing Series Europe competition opens this year in France, in the Mediterranean port of S�te. Last year, Judy Armstrong took part and experienced the ride of her lifeThe Mediterranean sea is a dangerous blue. It is the blue of dreams, solid and deep... deeper than night, deeper than nightmares. I tell you this with authority, because it’s just below my feet. I’m looking at the ocean through a trampoline of black nylon, knotted into wide squares. The nylon mesh connects two narrow hulls made of feather-light carbon fibre. In the centre of the trampoline is a sky-piercing mast, made in two sections of variable stiffness so it can change shape under pressure. Straining against the mast is a cream and silver mainsail striped with carbon and kevlar, the trademark of the world’s best sails. The name Luna is emblazoned along its length.This is an Extreme 40, a new breed of speed machine. There are just 18 in the world and ten of them are gathered in Hy�res on the C�te d’Azur. Founded more than 2,000 years ago by Greek sailors and named Olbia, Hy�res is one of six European venues that hosted the 2009 edition of the Formula One of sailing. This year from 27 to 30 May, France’s host port will be S�te, famed as the Venice of Languedoc, on the Golfe du Lion.

Sailing superstarsAs well as a competition, Extreme Sailing is a showcase. Because of the speed, adrenaline and sheer fun involved, Extreme 40s attract the best sailors in the world, from a dizzy range of disciplines. In 2009 they included Shirley Robertson, Britain’s double gold medal-sailing Olympian, skippering the boat iShares. Also in the line-up was Mike Golding, multi-world champion and one of only two Brits to have stood on the podium in the Vend�e Globe, heading the team on the boat Ecover. Between them, this series’ sailors has taken 50 World Championship titles, 27 America’s Cup campaigns, 12 European Championship titles, 17 round-the-world navigations and six Olympic medals. Everyone here is at the top, the very top, of their game. Each Extreme 40 has four crew with space for a fifth man’: a person who sits in for the ride. In Hy�res, on the French boat Luna, that person is me, and at this moment, we are flying past the port at around 20 miles per hour. I use the word flying’ with feeling: one hull is on the water, the trampoline is at an angle of about 45 degrees and the other hull is perhaps two metres in the air. And I’m sitting on it.

New team memberI arrive in the land of sleek machines by eXtreme RIB, a ludicrously fast rigid inflatable built using Formula One autoclave technology. Its super-tanned pilot pulls up alongside Luna and heaves me overboard. I scramble gracelessly onto the carbon hull, hauling on a rope attached to – as it happens – nothing, and nearly fall back into the RIB. Luna’s crew watch in silence, clearly unimpressed at the agility of their fifth member.As I settle sheepishly into a corner, a voice crackles over the radio. “Four minutes to start, teams. Four minutes to start. We are following Course Alpha, Course Alpha.” The language of Extreme 40 racing is English: with teams drawn from around the world, it’s the safest option. There is a moment’s consternation on Luna, however, which has an entirely French crew. Lo�c, the bravest, speaks up: “This is Luna. Explain Course Alpha. What is Course Alpha?”Erik Maris, privateer owner and helmsman, begins a countdown. “Deux minutes. Une trente. Une minute. Trente secondes.”Without anyone on Luna appearing to move, the catamaran picks up speed. She slices toward the start, an invisible line between a marker buoy and the race starter’s boat. Erik is counting seconds – neuf, huit, sept – and the boat quivers. Faces, relaxed two minutes ago, are alert and tense. “Allez,” shouts Erik at the helm. But we’re in a bad place on the line so he cuts Luna right, taking a risk on a different position to the rest of the fleet: at the back, you have nothing to lose. Within seconds, we are flying. Luna feels weightless. There is no sensation of smashing into waves, riding swells as in a normal boat. Instead, she accelerates like mercury flowing down a mountain, her carbon fibre hulls rising and falling like a balloon on a breeze. While the rudders and sails dictate forward movement, central fins on each hull stop her moving sideways; from below, they look like knives. Occasionally a wave erupts, bursting through the trampoline, spraying high and white over our feet and faces. But mostly, the ride is smooth; the sensation is of pure, unimaginable speed.She may feel serene from my crouched position at the bow, but her crew are working their deck-shoes off. Erik, master and commander, is silent on the helm; it’s only when the race is nearly over that I realise he has one arm in a plaster cast. Everyone else is shouting: “Move! Faster! Over there! More power on the winch! Lean further out, further out! More weight here! Pull!”I am trying not to panic, scurrying over the trampoline like a spider crab, reluctant to let go of the harsh nylon mesh, terrified of getting in the way or tripping over a rope or falling overboard. Each time we change direction, the crew and I hurtle across the net to the other side of the boat; they haul on riggings, winch and furl, strain and sweat. I make myself into a tiny ball at the bow and keep my head down.The view from the front is phenomenal: it’s like being perched on a missile. From this angle, the gleaming, spray-flecked hull narrows to a point. Beside it, the long bowsprit has wave-like kinks, under pressure from the immense sails that pull at its middle and end. When the sails are up – a blue gennaker the size of a football field, a cream and silver mainsail – there is a vacuum of sound, an almost eerie silence. The crew are skilled at raising, angling and tensioning the sails; there is no flicking and cracking as fabric whips in the wind. This is an oiled machine.We race, hearts out, for maybe 20 minutes, turning around buoys, sprinting for the line. When it’s over the crew sit back, shattered, shining with sweat and effort. There may be as many as ten races like this today; it’s clear that the men and women who sail Extreme 40s are Olympian athletes. The point of Extreme 40 racing, apart from speed and winning, is as a spectator sport. Races are short and usually run close to the shore so the crowds lining the rocks and promenades have plenty to entertain them. Small children lick melting ice cream cones, a mature woman with cherry-red hair shelters under an umbrella, a poodle puffs and pulls at his lead. Bright sails dart up and down the coast, fast into the light wind, racing like bullets downwind.

Ghostly boatsI decide to get a different view of the action, and pick up a place on a race support RIB. David, a top-class sailor himself, drives it energetically among the race fleet. We watch from the water as crowds gather on the rocks, the wind gains strength and the boats start to fly. As the race starts and the fleet rockets toward us, I suddenly realise what’s happening. These boats are like ghosts. Silent, ephemeral, light as a dream, they waft across the water, hulls rising and falling almost randomly. In an instant they can change direction, change speed, even change form as sails and hulls shimmer up and down, up and down.It makes sense, somehow. A ghost has no barriers and neither, it seems, do Extreme 40s. Against a backdrop of an ancient trading port, futuristic sailing machines are doing battle. Let the racing commence…